Philosophy & Politics

The principles underlying approaches to policy

British bullshit for British voters

The latest spate of humbug surrounded the "British Jobs for British Workers" strikes.

Even the application of the term "strike" was a piece of humbug. The protesters didn't work there, so how could they go on strike? This was secondary picketing, but no one dared to call it by its real name.

Why has there been no comment on whether there were issues over foreign workers at the sites where sympathy action was taken? If so, were these contracts excluding local workers suddenly awarded in a spate at power stations around the country? Or had no action been taken at these sites previously because (a) there weren't many foreign workers there, and (b) people didn't have a problem with the foreign workers at those sites until they were prompted by the protest at Lindsay? Unless there was a very strange set of coincidences going on, weren't the sympathy actions entirely illegitimate secondary action, against companies unrelated to the Lindsay strike, by people with no previous inclination to protest against those companies, with no obvious achievable objective at those locations?

And what about the original letting of the contract to the foreign firm? Several contractors bid for the work. Labour costs would have been a major component of their bids. Cost and expectations of quality of work would have been major factors in Total's decision. The foreign firm was able to put in a winning bid because, by employing foreign workers, it was able credibly to promise a decent-quality job at lower cost than the British contractors who priced in the costs of using British workers. Should we be surprised about this? Should we criticise Total for taking the obvious business decision? Or should British contractors and British workers be asking themselves if they aren't overpricing themselves? If most of the politicians, commentators and businessmen involved hadn't been so feeble in failing to point about this fundamental reality, this could have been a painful but useful lesson in the realities of the labour market in an economic contraction. Instead, our "leaders" behaved as though they believed the protests to be justified, and allowed it to become a debate about how much and what type of action should be taken to try to buck the market.

All the same, I have sympathy with the protesters and the vast majority of British people struggling to make ends meet: not because there is an iota of sense in the claims that we should somehow try to ring-fence jobs and rates for British workers at a time when the economy is collapsing (the fastest way to repeat the 1930s experience in America, which seems to be the direction of policy in most countries anyway); but because they have been slowly trapped, by 15 years or more of lousy policy and hopeless management of the economy, into a situation where the average British worker can barely afford to live on the average British wage. Many of them were, of course, complicit in this development, not only because they voted for the idiots who mismanaged our affairs, but also because they happily racked up the debts, luxuriated in the bloated public services, and developed a sense of entitlement from the vast amount of over-protection provided to the under-deserving by the state. But whether or not they were complicit (and those who were not are in no better a position than their profligate compatriots), their situation is almost untenable now, and that is not anything you would wish on anybody, let alone a whole nation.

Just consider one component of the economic choice of the contractors. Look at the barge that the foreign workers are living on, and compare it with the typical cost of rent or mortgage to live in a British house. Of course the foreign workers can afford to bid a lower price for their labour. We have created a situation where we can't afford to work at wages that would be competitive even against other developed nations, let alone developing nations. We can't afford to take lower wages, but we can't compete at the wages that we need for even the most menial quality of life.

No wonder the pound has collapsed, and thank goodness it has and that we have a currency that allows that adjustment. Without realising it, every Briton has in the past year effectively taken a 40% pay cut, in international terms. And the value of all our assets, including our homes, have been similarly cut, even before we take into account the falls in prices. Yet, even now, we are not competitive. Does that give some idea how fat, complacent and lazy we had got? And of the pain we are in for if (as looks likely) the pound now strenthens again, and with it the costs of our labour and assets increase?

I won't go in to the stupidity of Gordon's use of the term "British Jobs for British Workers", and the disingenuity of his claim that the phrase was intended to be interpreted as referring solely to the question of training. Nor will I discuss the absurdity of the internal debate within the Labour party and parts of the media about whether European law is to blame, is right or wrong, and ought to be changed, knowing full well that there is not a hope of changing it, and that plenty of Britons have been on the other side of this fence and taken advantage of these freedoms. These true but somewhat facile points have been well-dissected by our commentariat.

But I am tempted briefly to point out that this yet again demonstrates that the supposed "far-right nationalists", to whom our struggling working classes are supposedly attracted by this sort of problem, are actually far-left nationalists. Lefties are always amazed that it is their voters who most easily cross over to the BNP. Like Billy Bragg on tonight's This Week, they claim that these people have leapt across the political spectrum, from Labour on the left to the BNP on the right, for some reason not pausing en route to consider the LibDems and Conservatives who supposedly lie in between.

Of course, to those of an Austrian persuasion, who define the left-right political spectrum as being from more (on the left) to less (on the right) bureaucracy, authoritarianism, and expectation that the state is all-seeing, all-knowing and will make everything right, the step from Labour to BNP is an easily explicable, small progression for people to make. By voting Labour, they expressed the hope that government could solve all their problems. When government fails to do so, they look for other parties who claim that still more draconian government action is needed. They take for granted that their travails are other people's fault and other people's job to put right. If other people (i.e. the government) try but fail to put things right, it must be because some evil forces are preventing the government's interventions from working. It has nothing to do with the unsuitability of the government's measures, the impossibility of achieving these ends by these means, or the individual's failure to help himself. It is all down to powerful, mysterious, external forces. And who are more mysterious, external, and easy to blame than people who are different to us?

The far-right extreme is not fascism, it is anarchism. Fascism and communism sit side-by-side on the authoritarian, socialistic extreme left (remember, the Nazis were National Socialists). They are distinguished mainly by their emphasis on a nationalist or internationalist scope to their ambitions, not by any fundamental differences of philosophy. But our intellectuals (in the Hayekian sense) persist in placing them at opposite ends of the spectrum, and then create all sorts of convoluted arguments and analogies (perhaps the spectrum isn't a straight line, it's a circle or a cross) to try to explain away the repeated anomalies thrown up by their failed paradigm. Some do it from simple intellectual laziness, others do it to justify their socialistic bias (after all, anything that is opposite to fascism must be right, mustn't it?). But whatever their motivations, it is pure humbug.

Between the points that the media have picked up on, and those that they never would, the analysis of this dispute was a real pick-and-mix of glistening, tooth-rotting, bloating, nutritionless confectionery.

Fixing the energy market

The Institute for Paternalism, Protectionism and Regulation today published a report on Energy Security. It is, in the most part, a rehashing of received wisdom, without understanding or insight, but one phrase in the Executive Summary stood out for being more than just vacuous. It is symbolic of the way that this sort of organization, and their friends on the centre-left and centre-right, view the role of government:

"Clearly there is no one-size-fits-all solution to these challenges and undoubtedly a mix of policy measures will be required."

Sounds innocent enough, but consider if you applied the logic in other fields. What about the field from which the phrase is drawn? There is no one-size-fits-all solution for clothing, so the Government needs a mix of policy measures to ensure that the correct balance of sizes is supplied. There tends to be less demand for the smallest and largest sizes, so to reduce the risk that the market may not provide equal choice to these consumers, we will have a policy to encourage or require production of extra-small and extra-large sizes. The larger sizes use more fabric and therefore cost more to produce, so we will have a policy to subsidize outsize clothing, to avoid people being "discriminated" against for their size. There are a range of collar, bust/chest, waste, hip, inside leg and thigh sizes, so we will have policies to ensure that sufficient quantities of each size is produced. And these different measurements occur in a range of combinations. Shall we have policies to try to calculate the incidence of the various combinations, and mandate that production match these calculations? Or shall we mandate the mean or median combinations, as government is fond of doing in other fields (people's deviation from the mean being a "second-order" issue)? How shall we allocate responsibility for production of different sizes and shapes to the various design houses? Should every range have to comply with all these policies, so that no one is deprived of a choice that someone else has, in accordance with the principles of equity? How will small lines survive when they have to satisfy rules that compel them to service the whole market? How much variety will be on offer? And how will new styles, designs, and innovations occur when designers are bound tightly by rules that determine the sizes and shapes that they must offer?

It's ridiculous, of course, but it is no less ridiculous to apply this approach to the many fields, such as energy, where the Government and bodies like the IPPR believe that it is essential to intervene with a wide range of targeted measures. The truth is exactly the opposite. It is precisely because there is no one-size-fits-all solution that it is important for the Government to intervene as little as possible. We need to allow the market to function without skewing it, so we can discover the optimal balance of options.

Centrist politics - stealing or sharing clothes?

Andrew Pierce, Assistant Editor of the Telegraph, reviewing PMQs on Radio 5Live today, was laughing at how Brown had once again stolen the Tories' clothes (this time, on border police), leaving Cameron "standing naked at the dispatch box". He claims the Tories are furious about it, but have no option but to agree that Brown's proposals are a jolly good thing, if the proposals were theirs in the first place.

The Tories have brought this on themselves by seeking the managerialist "centre-ground". If they look to adopt positions close to Blair and Brown's Third-Way programme, they should not be surprised if the Government adopts their ideas. Now that they all share the same sizes and styles, their wardrobes are interchangeable. This isn't stealing, it's sharing, like co-habiting girlfriends. Stealing is selfish, sharing is mutual - Dave was today trying on Gordon's "56-day detention" outfit for size, though he's not quite sure whether it suits (DD was said to be sure that it didn't this morning, but then his taste is more conservative).

The only way to prevent this from happening, and to provide voters with a good reason for voting for a party other than the Government, is to adopt a philosophy and policies that are distinct from the Government's interventionist position.

I have been writing about the three irreconcilable branches of the Tory party - the social-democrats, conservatives, and classical-liberals. Brown will have no difficulty borrowing social-democrat policies - that's exactly his size and style. And, although people like to imagine that leftists are socially liberal, the working-class instincts of many of their supporters will have no trouble reconciling themselves with socially-conservative policies, so long as they incoporate sops to the poor and disadvantaged, which Cameron's social-democratic instincts and determination to stop the Tories looking like the "nasty party" oblige him to incorporate in any proposals. And as lefties from Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini and Hitler,* down to the modern-day Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez have demonstrated, the left are enthusiastic adopters of authoritarian (and often even racist) positions - again catering to the prejudices of what they view as their core constituency (or class).

The one position with which lefties find it difficult to reconcile themselves is classical-liberalism. They can handle the social-liberal aspects of that (though in a meddling, "let's make everything perfect for everyone" rather than "laissez-faire, laissez-passer" kind of way), but the economic liberalism and individualism is simply incompatible with their beliefs. Brown and Blair have made a good job of pretending it is otherwise (and in the case of Blair, I believe there was a genuine modicum of belief in free markets), but scratch beneath the surface of almost everything they have done, and you find a corporatist, managerialist, effectively-socialist solution disguised as a market mechanism. They have coopted the large corporations and City institutions, and consulted economists till they (or we) are blue in the face, to maintain the charade of market-delivery, but they have at all times hindered the freedom of businesses large and small to respond freely to unbiased market signals.

The Tories should accept that Uncle Gordo will try to look as authoritarian as them (if not more so) on law-and-order issues. They should argue for what they believe is right on security issues (strong, well-funded defence of personal liberty, property, and nation - pretty much what DD has been promoting very effectively), and live with Gordon stealing the parts of that agenda that are more authoritarian and less liberal. But exactly contrary to the Letwin/Willetts brainbox-nonsense about "socio-centric not econo-centric paradigms", they should try to drag the focus back to the size of the state, whether in its intrusion into people's private lives, or into our economic activities. Those are clothes that Gordon simply couldn't wear comfortably if he tried to steal them. But it would require them explicitly to abandon the Letwin programme and to commit to cuts in government-funded activities and in taxation. Is Cameron brave enough, and could he carry it off convincingly given his position to date? If not, those who think that politics really is about the battle of ideas, and not just about who can best run other people's lives, should leave the Tories to flounder in Gordon's wake, and go off and set up a real alternative.

Gordon's subtle corruption of our freedom

There are many things in Gordon Brown's statement of constitutional issues to be developed by his Government, The Governance of Britain, that are more dangerous than the flying of the Union Flag. For instance, take the statement that one of the ideas "at the heart of British citizenship" is "that there is an appropriate balance to be drawn between the individual’s right to freedom and the collective good of all" (para 204, p.60). At first glance, it doesn't sound controversial. Of course we do not have complete freedom to do what we like, and must constrain our behaviour to avoid harm to others. As Justice William O. Douglas put it: "My freedom to move my fist must be limited by the proximity of your chin."

But this statement subtly extends that consideration in a way that has significant ramifications. It is not harm to another that is the constraint in Gordon's scheme, but "the collective good of all". This offers much more scope for governments to decide that freedoms may be limited for the "general good". In fact, one would find that all authoritarian and totalitarian governments would argue that their measures had been justified because they were in the interests of the "collective good".

There is a long tradition of debate on this issue, and it will no doubt continue for a good deal longer. But Gordon is objectively wrong on one aspect - this is not an idea "at the heart of British citizenship". At the most, the question of whether the rights of the individual supersede those of the collective remains unresolved in Britain. I would argue further than that - that Gordon's approach is an (admittedly, well-established) European cuckoo in the British nest; an attempt to shoehorn continental, Rousseauian and Napoleonic collectivism, into British Lockean, common-law, Enlightenment individualism.

We should not conceed this starting-point to Gordon. If we do, it is just a question of the degree of state intervention that is justified in the collective interest, a subjectivity that will always be abused by governments wanting to inflict their views on us. We must argue over the principle, not the detail. Or we end up in the position of the attractive girl propositioned by George Bernard Shaw to sleep with him for a million pounds, who, upon indicating that she might, was asked if she would sleep with him for five pounds. Offended, she objected "Sir, what kind of woman do you think I am?" Shaw replied, "Madam, we have already established what kind of woman you are. Now all we have to do is haggle over the price."

Britannia is not that kind of woman, I hope.

The Government gets gold (Tories silver)

The results are in. As expected, the Government has won Gold, while the Conservatives have had to settle for Silver (Gilt). It's a creditable performance, but not quite competitive. Close, but no banana - is this a taste of things to come?

OK, the proxy battle being fought at Hampton Court Flower Show isn't a perfect test-bed for the political contest. But neither is it unrelated.

DfES Hampton Court GardenThe Department for Education and Skills garden won not only Gold but Best in Show with a celebrity- reinforced team of all the talents, fronted by Chris Beardshaw of Gardeners' World and Flying Gardener fame. They also threw money - £250,000 - at the project to ensure success. I am told that this is the going rate for a show-garden of this size, and that Chris and his team did very well to ensure a successful return on the "investment" (to use the Government's preferred term for spending). However, it was up to the Government to specify the size and budget, and once again they have shown a disinclination to cut their cloth to suit their means. Success, but at a price.

As a project that was intended to involve "the active and creative participation of the young people themselves", there was potential to save some of the cost through the involvement of those young people. Unfortunately, that participation was limited to design and growing the plants. Health & Safety regulations meant that the children could not be involved in the construction of the garden. A wasted opportunity to educate, enthuse and save money, thanks to red-tape.


Tory Hampton Court Garden

The Tory garden was built for The Conservative Foundation, whose purpose is to build a "secure capital fund" that will "safeguard the Party's finances for the longer term". In other words, the Tories have created a garden to attract the coffin-dodgers who make up a large part of the visitors to this sort of show and who might be prepared to leave them some money in their wills. This would be a more effective strategy if anyone was actually manning the garden, as was not the case (on occasions, at least) on the opening day. Cynicism and incompetence - what could be more Tory nowadays?

The LibDems were nowhere to be seen.

Very educational, these garden-shows.

Time for an SDP moment

The tensions that have been festering in the Conservative Party since the end of Dave Cameron's brief honeymoon (and, indeed, much longer than that) are breaking out into open sores (again), following the unfortunate coincidence of Tory cock-up (on grammar schools) and Brown bounce. Tim Montgomerie's ToryDiary, usually the most loyal of the high-readership Tory blogs, offered measured criticism of a piece by Michael Gove in The Observer, and the response from Tim's readership has been all-out warfare between the "don't rock the boat" crowd and the "where are our principles" crowd. The same debate occurs in response to most posts on the future of the Tory party.

It's time for an SDP moment. The Tory party isn't a broad church any more, it's schizophrenic. The comments in the Tory blogs make that clear. There are (at least) three separate philosophies within the Conservative party, which I cannot see being reconciled - conservative, social-democrat, and (for want of a better word since "liberal" got hijacked) libertarian. Being part of the same tribe isn't enough to hold them together any more.

What has made the current discontent so strong and persistent is that it's not clear (for lack of policy) where Dave Cameron stands philosophically, but most of the "mood music" is social-democrat, which has got both the conservatives and the libertarians up-in-arms. To alienate one branch of the party is unfortunate. To alienate two could be considered careless.

Social-democrats and conservatives have managed to compromise in the past, in the One Nation tradition. Libertarians and conservatives cooperated in the form of Thatcherism. It is not clear that there has ever been a successful alliance of social-democrats and libertarians within the Tory party (if one deletes the word "successful", that is more the domain of the LibDems), let alone of all three.

Before Lady Thatcher, the libertarian wing was sufficiently insignificant (and without alternative home) for the party to pursue the One-Nation approach for decades without widespread discontent. After Lady T, the libertarian wing was so numerous that it could no longer be ignored. But finding a policy framework that could satisfy all three seems to be very difficult, which explains the essential vacuity of the Major years. The response to these impossible tensions has either been to say as little as possible about principle (Major and Cameron so far) or to position oneself between two of the philosophies (Hague, IDS and Howard). The choice seems to be to alienate the party or the electorate - usually both. Dave Cameron's strategy of "moving to the centre-ground" has no more addressed this problem than did any of his predecessors.

The tuber of a water-lily can outgrow the resources of its environment, at which point the plant begins to atrophy. The solution is occasionally to lift the tuber, divide it, and replant the separate pieces in their own space. Each new water-lily will, after a year or two, prosper more than the overgrown original.

It is time for the Tories to give their various philosophical strands the space to grow.

Big Business Council for Britain

Life just got worse for the little guy. Gordon has always believed that "business" = "the major corporates and City institutions". His understanding of the impact of his policies, and therefore the policies themselves, have been conditioned by the advice he has been given by the bosses of these businesses. Never ones to look a gift-horse in the mouth, these leaders have not been averse to steering their advice in the direction that suits their businesses. Hence the Government's support for failed and partial policies that favour the big incumbents, like the EU-ETS.

This biased and blinkered attitude to business in the nation of shopkeepers (by which Smith and Napoleon did not mean Tesco and Sainsbury) has now been institutionalized, with the creation of the Business Council for Britain, and its proposed close relationship to the rump of the DTI, now known as the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Add to that the appointment of another ex-CBI, corporatist, third-way poodle - Sir Digby Jones - as Minister of State for Trade and Investment, and you have a government that is going to be run on the advice of and in the interests of big business, whatever Sir Digby might claim.

The BCB, populated exclusively and deliberately by corporate leaders, will have great influence over commercial and regulatory policy direction, and preferential access to No.10. Expect to see policies, mechanisms, incentives, and regulations change over time to further favour big businesses - for example, through imposition of costs that can be spread more effectively by larger corporations, but loosening of constraints that prevent them abusing their market power.

The balance of power and responsibility is revealing. DBERR/DTI's home-page tells us that "DBERR will provide support to the new Business Council for Britain. The Council, made up of senior business leaders, will assist the Government in putting in place the right strategy to promote the long-term health of the UK economy." DBERR will support the Council, not the other way round. And the Council will assist the Government, not the DBERR. What this means is that Gordon ("the Government") will run the economy on the advice of his City pals, and John Denham and the DBERR will be their gophers.

We knew that corporate capture of government would be escalated by Brown's arrival at No.10, but even to pessimists like myself, the speed of the takeover is breathtaking and depressing. The corruption and sell-out of Britain continues.


JG has posted on the subject of Tony's legacy. This post started as a comment, and grew so large that I decided to post it separately.

I must see things through an inverting lens.

  • Reagan: Never a buffoon in the eyes of those old enough to see through the Spitting Image caricature, and intelligent enough to understand the mess the Western economies were in in 1980. Heard an excellent example recently of how well Reagan "got it", better than any American president for a century, from a woman who worked in his administration. Her husband also worked for him, in the Department of Agriculture. Invited to see the President, he told Reagan how efficient he was going to make the Department. Reagan's reply: "Now listen, don't make it too efficient. Can you imagine if we got all the government we pay for?" That's a smart cookie.
  • Thatcher: Cruel to whom? The British government had spent decades being cruel to those who wanted to improve their lot, and generous to those who just wanted a wage for a day's attendance or better still a wage for no attendance, regardless of whether they contributed to the economy. She reversed that, and although far more people benefited (then and now) than suffered at the time, all people talk about is how hard it was on the people who had been screwing the British economy for decades. I'm sorry, but they had it coming to them. And as for megalomania, her biggest mistakes were when she left people like Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson (and her European counterparts) to lead her up the garden path on the Single European Act and the ERM. I bet she regrets being too soft, not too hard.
  • George W Bush: The good part - lower taxes. The bad part: bigger government. If he had managed to rein-in government spending to match the tax-cuts, he could have been remembered as another Reagan (domestically). Instead, he will be remembered as a contributor to one of the biggest economic imbalances the world has ever seen. Unless, that is, the intellectuals find a way to rewrite history to blame the coming collapse on something else (that better suits their view of the world, e.g. it was nothing to do with fiscal irresponsibility). Combine that with his failure in the clash with Islam (let's not call it a clash of civilizations, that is too good a word for the state of modern Islam), and he ought to go down as one of the worst presidents in their history. Not for what he wanted to do, a lot of which wasn't too bad, but for what he actually did, which was a lot worse.
  • Blair: His principal legacy is the bureaucratization and re-socialization of Britain; the restoration and extension of the leviathan state - more layers, more powers, more employees and sub-contractors, more welfare-dependency, more intervention in business and charity, more intrusion into personal and family affairs, more central-planning and micro-management, more regulation, more taxation....

Howard Davies, Europe, Brown and the politicization of our institutions

Howard Davies is reported in Le Figaro as saying:

"On Europe, we do not yet know if Sarkozy is a friend or an enemy.... Selling the Brussels result will be arduous for Brown… It is crucial for him that Sarkozy continues to defend the idea that the new treaty does not mean much. The slightest suspicion that this treaty is the first step on a new federal adventure will be blown up out of all proportion. Any triumphalism about the withdrawal of the reference to competition will make Brown’s life very difficult. For the first time since the rejection by de Gaulle of our request for accession to the common market, a British government finds itself in the uncomfortable position of being liable to a French president. One false move, one word too many from the Elysée, and Prime Minister Brown will have big problems. Brown, who has waited so long and impatiently for his moment, is particularly frustrated at not being in charge on the European agenda. That means that he is condemned, whether he likes it or not, to keeping close relations with Sarkozy. Brown cannot let him leave his sight." (Hat-tip to OpenEurope for spotting this and translating it.)

Howard Davies is Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), before which he was Chairman of the Financial Services Authority (FSA), before which he was Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, before which he was Director-General of the Confederation of British Industries (CBI). All roles in which he should have eschewed political partisanship. And all organizations (with the possible exception of the Bank) of which there is a strong whiff of Third-Way politicization. Now look at that statement again.

Sarkozy, The Constitution and Free Markets

Some people claim that Nicolas Sarkozy is France's Margaret Thatcher. Yeah, right.

To quote from the BBC report:

"A reference to 'free and undistorted competition' was pulled from the draft [Treaty that isn't the Constitutional Treaty] after French pressure late on Thursday. Instead, the treaty refers to 'social cohesion' and 'full employment'."

Sarkozy did not hide his contempt for free trade during the election. This is consistent with his position. But those who thought they were getting an economic liberal, simply because they heard someone who talked tough on immigration and liked to swing a handbag, were fools.

Anyway, two good things stem from this.

Firstly, it is clear that this is not just a tidying-up exercise, and that this goes to the heart of what Europe is about. The Government has absolutely no excuse to deny the British public a referendum, given their promises that one would be held for any significant changes.

Secondly, Jose Manual Barroso, Angela Merkel and the rest of the con-merchants can no longer argue that certain aspects, such as voting rights, ought not to be opened up again, as they have already been settled. If something as fundamental as this is still subject to change, then nothing should be off-limits. We should support the Poles in demanding that the German stitch-up on voting rights be re-examined. They were right anyway, but now there is no excuse for trying to railroad them.

Do the LibDems know what "liberal" means?

Iain Dale has demolished in a few short words Ming Campbell's proposal to abuse local-authority powers to get more social housing built, so effectively that even the LibDem NorfolkBlogger agrees with him. This has provoked an unintentionally funny response on NorfolkBlogger's site from Tim Leunig, Lecturer in Economic History at the LSE, and original author of Ming's proposal:

"In what sense are CLAs illiberal?
1) Allow local authorities total control over how many houses are built in their area
2) Allow local authorities total control over what proportion are social houses
3) Will lead to lower house price inflation, so that hopefully your child and mine can afford to leave home in 2030

Freedom and social justice: a good combination, surely?"

In what sense is "total control" by the authorities "illiberal"? If you need to ask, Tim, you are probably beyond help.

Key prejudices

There is a marvellous booklet, published by the Social Affairs Unit in 2000, called the Dictionary of Dangerous Words. It contains modern definitions, provided by many great thinkers and Oliver Letwin, of words "which once meant something good and now mean something bad, which once meant something and now mean nothing or vice versa, or which have in some interesting sense changed". If the SAU were thinking of bringing out a new edition, I would recommend that little word "key" for inclusion.

I was looking at the speaker-list for an energy conference, and it was pretty much the same list as for every other conference on the subject, of which there are dozens a year. This particular conference was organized on behalf of the Institute of Economic Affairs, which, of all organizations, ought to have been trying to encourage alternative perspectives. I wondered how the organizers came up with such an uninspired and conformist list, and happily they provide an explanation on their website. Their "target list" is put together "following extensive research and consultation with key industry executives". And guess what: their list of speakers is chock-full with those same "key industry executives".

So I add the phrase "key industry executives" to those other abuses of English: "key workers" and "key stakeholders". "Key" is used in this sense to mean "the people (or things) that we think matter". No standard is provided by which this assessment is made. The implication is that it is self-evident that these people (or things) are clearly the most important. "Key workers" are to be contrasted with those unessential workers in the economy, "key stakeholders" with those whose voices need not be listened to, "key executives" with the other executives who don't know as much about or aren't as important to their industry.

And there is worse. The phrase "key civil liberties" is starting to be used more commonly. That would be to distinguish from the unimportant civil liberties, would it? The ones that we need not guard so jealously?

Global citizens

Just lent my copy of P.J.O'Rourke's Give War A Chance to a friend, so decided to replace my lost copies of Eat The Rich and Parliament of Whores, to re-read them (and extract a few quotes for this site in the process). Went into the local W.H.Smiths and couldn't find an appropriate section. Would it be Politics or Philosophy or Economics or Current Affairs or Humour? Strangely, there didn't seem to be sections for the former, or anything targeted at the over-14 age-bracket in the latter. There were, on the other hand, several bookcases devoted to "Tragic Life Stories" (a sub-genre of autobiography that I hadn't realised the need to distinguish, like the big sections for the "life-stories" of 22-year-old footballers and media celebrities). Rows and rows of fantasy books and puzzles, too, but nothing too taxing.

Decided I must just be being obtuse, so asked at the desk. "Is that P.J. as in the letters, and how do you spell O'Rourke?". Oh dear. Nothing in the computer. Curiosity piqued that they seemed only to offer books for the lobotomised, I enquired where I would find the sections for P or P or E or CA. "We don't really have a section for them, but you might find something in the History section." A bit of lateral thinking required: "Where do you keep your Boris Johnson, then?" This is Maidenhead, and Boris is not only hopefully a well-enough known celebrity even to oiks, but MP for the neighbouring constituency of Henley. Must be a bit of Boris on the shelves.

Taken to look at the History section. Logical enough, given his excellent Dream of Rome. But no Boris in History, which is 80% Military History, and 80% of that about WWII. Instead, tucked away amongst the Spitfires and Shermans are a couple of shelves of "General Interest", which is intended to cover P,P,E, CA and much else besides. Finally, there is Boris, but sadly Maidenhead's intellectual capacity will only stretch to his book on cars (gives you an idea of the range of interests intended to be covered by those two shelves). That, it seems, is all we want to hear about from our politicians and pundits.

Maidenhead is typical of every bland High Street in the country, and it seems that, judging by their reading tastes, the typical shopper in the typical High Street in England is BRAINDEAD. Mind you, some more than others. At least Maidenhead's Smiths carries some current-affairs magazines, though tucked away at the back as though they are a little ashamed of them. And so infrequently attended that they are still displaying the Spectator from the week before last.

Still, that beats Newton Abbot, where I once got stuck for a couple of hours on the way back from Torquay. Looking for some reading material, I walked into town, stopping into each newsagent for a current-affairs magazine. After three failures, I asked the shopkeeper if he had anything suitable - something like The Economist, or Time or Newsweek, or some other obscure intellectual magazine like them. "Not much call for that round here." But there was clearly plenty of call for magazines about tractors and carp-fishing. Jethro is not exaggerating about the west-country.

Anyway, to the point. Below the General Interest shelves (back in Maidenhead) was one for books to help with your Citizenship test (another sign of the times). The Government's official publication, Life in the United Kingdom - A Journey to Citizenship, caught my eye. A theory and a game suggested themselves.

International disinterestedness

What do the following have in common?

  • The top 16 in the Eurovision Song Contest consist of 14 former communist-block countries, plus Greece and Turkey. As usual, regional block-voting dominated the outcome.
  • Zimbabwe was elected to head the UN's Commission on Sustainable Development, thanks to the African block choosing to put African solidarity and contempt for the first-world ahead of responsibility.
  • Every member of the EU except Britain defrauds the first phase of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme by overestimating their potential emissions and setting themselves targets that are so easy to meet that they can profit from excess emissions rights without having to make serious efforts to reduce emissions. The value of carbon in EU-ETS collapses as a consequence, and no significant reductions of emissions are attributable to the first phase.
  • Concerted action on Darfur is undermined by the self-interest of countries like China, India and Malaysia.
  • Concerted action on Iran's nuclear programme is undermined by Russian self-interest.
  • Russia is trying to put together a gas cartel along the lines of OPEC, in order to control the price of gas to its mainly Western customers.
  • Progress on reform of agricultural support and protectionism at the WTO is hampered by regional blocks trying to maximise their advantage. Rich countries like France are quite prepared to sabotage the process in order to protect the profits of the 3% of their population now engaged in farming. Their old, supposedly right-wing government has refused to countenance any reduction of support under the EU Common Agricultural Policy. Their new, supposedly right-wing president has called for Europe to be more protectionist.

The big Tory idea

Fascinating briefing by Peter Riddell in today's Times on the ideas of Oliver Letwin. Of course, Riddell is limited by the space constraints of newspaper reporting. On the one hand, he could have got by with a lot less space, if he had accurately and succinctly represented the essential vacuity of Letwin's "big idea". On the other, he could have filled the whole paper several times over if he had given a full exposition of the many layers of glossy pseudo-philosophising in which Letwin has wrapped the empty box of his intellectual bankruptcy.

Letwin's "big idea", Riddell reports, is that he wants to "shift the debate from an econo-centric paradigm to a socio-centric paradigm". In other words, we should forget about economics because capitalism has won the battle with socialism, and focus instead on "how we live".

So long as we live within the law, it is none of the government's business how we live. Perhaps he thinks the government is entitled to intervene in our lives because the way of life of a minority (the "underclass") affects everyone else's lives. But that is for two reasons - law and order, which the government should uphold without any need to venture more deeply into our lives, and costs of welfare provision. If it's the latter, we are back to economics.

If this is the "big idea", it is no more than a restatement of the old-fashioned Tory position in the classic divide - both sides want to interfere in our lives, but the Tories want to interfere in our personal lives, whereas Labour and the LibDems want to interfere in our economic lives. What about an option for government to interfere as little as possible in all aspects of our lives? 

Another day, another regret

More bitter experience. More unfinished business.

LP has pointed out The Guardian article in which Lord Falconer declares that Tony Blair has "big regrets" about not tackling the culture of public-service provision earlier. "I don't think we even really clocked that agenda until four or five years on", he is reported as saying.

This is looking like a theme. Why would the departing leader and his supporters be drawing attention to his failures? Has anyone got an alternative explanation to the one I posited yesterday?

The Project, Phase 2

Forget the legacy and the lecture circuit. Tony Blair has no intention of retiring from the front-line, nor even of being a good back-seat driver. He is preparing for the next phase of his political career, not for life after politics. How else are we to interpret his article in yesterday's Telegraph?

Mr Blair is positioning himself as the voice of wizened authority, of hardbitten realism, of painful lessons learned through bitter experience. Even the picture accompanying the article displays a harder-nosed Blair, staring out from the paper with a look of contempt that seems strangely familiar.

Alan B'Stard Anthony Blair
Anthony Blair Alan B'Stard

The Telegraph interpreted Mr Blair's article as an admission that he "got it wrong on problem families". But that was merely a tasty morsel offered out to a right-wing journal. It was not the main message. The main message was that you need experience to understand the real causes and solutions to social problems, experience that Blair has and Cameron does not.

Reform of party-funding - all yours for £13.50

In a move that is almost beyond parody, Sir Hayden Phillips - the man who thinks our political parties would be cheap at £25,000,000 a year - thinks £13.50 is good value to tell us what good value the parties are. That's what a copy of his report costs. 45p a page. Of drivel. That's a report we've already paid for, by the way.

To be fair, though, it's been hard work for him. 12 months to produce a 30-page report was a tough ask. Nor can it have been easy to arrive at the conclusion that the big parties should get lots of money, but had better sit down and sort out the details between themselves.

At least we can be sure that the process will have our best interests at heart. After all, the parties are the best people to decide how much of our money we ought to give them. Who else would appreciate the great contribution they make to our democratic process? And lest we suspect them of self-interest, Sir Hayden has guaranteed their honesty by recommending that their private discussions be subject to "independent oversight". Not that this be debated openly, mind you, because too much openness is a dangerous thing.

Perhaps I should try Sir Hayden's magical technique for discovering best value in my business life. When it comes to negotiating new prices with our suppliers, I shall invite them to get together to work out what is the right amount for us to pay them. Our employees will be instructed to put their heads together to work out how much they should get in this year's pay deal. And I have the advantage that our suppliers and employees know that pushing for too much will lead to unfortunate consequences, like taking less of their product, making some of them unemployed, or simply going out of business. If it works for us consumers of the services of political parties, who could take us for all they like so long as they stick together, it is bound to work for me.